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Against Foolish Talking And Jesting - Part 2

By Isaac Barrow


      "Nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient."-- Ephes. v.4.

      II. 1. All profane jesting, all speaking loosely and wantonly about holy things (things nearly related to God and religion), making such things the matters of sport and mockery, playing and trifling with them, is certainly prohibited, as an intolerably vain and wicked practice. It is an infallible sign of a vain and light spirit, which considereth little, and cannot distinguish things, to talk slightly concerning persons of high dignity, to whom especial respect is due; or about matters of great importance, which deserve very serious consideration. No man speaketh, or should speak, of his prince, that which he hath not weighed whether it will consist with that veneration which should be preserved inviolate to him. And is not the same, is not much greater care to be used in regard to the incomparably great and glorious Majesty of Heaven? Yes, surely, as we should not without great awe think of Him; so we should not presume to mention His name, His word, His institutions, anything immediately belonging to Him, without profoundest reverence and dread. It is the most enormous sauciness that can be imagined, to speak petulantly or pertly concerning Him; especially considering that whatever we do say about Him, we do utter it in His presence, and to His very face. "For there is not," as the holy psalmist considered, "a word in my tongue, but lo, O Lord, thou knowest it altogether." No man also hath the heart to droll, or thinks raillery convenient, in cases nearly touching his life, his health, his estate, or his fame: and are the true life and health of our soul, are interests in God's favour and mercy, are everlasting glory and bliss affairs of less moment? are the treasures and joys of paradise, or the damages and torments in hell, more jesting matters? No, certainly no: in all reason therefore it becometh us, and it infinitely concerneth us, whenever we think of these things, to be in best earnest, always to speak of them in most sober sadness.

      The proper objects of common mirth and sportful divertisement are mean and petty matters; anything at least is by playing therewith made such: great things are thereby diminished and debased; especially sacred things do grievously suffer thence, being with extreme indecency and indignity depressed beneath themselves, when they become the subjects of flashy wit, or the entertainments of frothy merriment: to sacrifice their honour to our vain pleasure, being like the ridiculous fondness of that people which, as AElian reporteth, worshipping a fly, did offer up an ox thereto. These things were by God instituted, and proposed to us for purposes quite different; to compose our hearts, and settle our fancies in a most serious frame; to breed inward satisfaction, and joy purely spiritual; to exercise our most solemn thoughts, and employ our gravest discourses: all our speech therefore about them should be wholesome, apt to afford good instruction, or to excite good affections; "good," as St. Paul speaketh, "for the use of edifying, that it may minister grace unto the hearers."

      If we must be facetious and merry, the field is wide and spacious; there are matters enough in the world besides these most august and dreadful things, to try our faculties and please our humour with; everywhere light and ludicrous things occur; it therefore doth argue a marvellous poverty of wit, and barrenness of invention (no less than a strange defect of goodness, and want of discretion), in those who can devise no other subjects to frolic upon besides these, of all most improper and perilous; who cannot seem ingenious under the charge of so highly trespassing upon decency, disclaiming wisdom, wounding the ears of others, and their own consciences. Seem ingenious, I say; for seldom those persons really are such, or are capable to discover any wit in a wise and manly way. 'Tis not the excellency of their fancies, which in themselves are usually sorry and insipid enough, but the uncouthness of their presumption; not their extraordinary wit, but their prodigious rashness, which is to be admired. They are gazed on, as the doers of bold tricks, who dare perform that which no sober man will attempt: they do indeed rather deserve themselves to be laughed at, than their conceits. For what can be more ridiculous than we do make ourselves, when we thus fiddle and fool with our own souls; when, to make vain people merry, we incense God's earnest displeasure; when, to raise a fit of present laughter, we expose ourselves to endless wailing and woe; when, to be reckoned wits, we prove ourselves stark wild? Surely to this case we may accommodate that of a truly great wit, King Solomon: "I said of laughter, It is mad; and of mirth, What doeth it?"

      2. All injurious, abusive, scurrilous jesting, which causelessly or needlessly tendeth to the disgrace, damage, vexation, or prejudice in any kind of our neighbour (provoking his displeasure, grating on his modesty, stirring passion in him), is also prohibited. When men, to raise an admiration of their wit, to please themselves, or gratify the humours of other men, do expose their neighbour to scorn and contempt, making ignominious reflections upon his person and his actions, taunting his real imperfections, or fastening imaginary ones upon him, they transgress their duty, and abuse their wits; 'tis not urbanity, or genuine facetiousness, but uncivil rudeness or vile malignity. To do thus, as it is the office of mean and base spirits (unfit for any worthy or weighty employments), so it is full of inhumanity, of iniquity, of indecency and folly. For the weaknesses of men, of what kind soever (natural or moral, in quality or in act), considering whence they spring, and how much we are all subject to them, and do need excuse for them, do in equity challenge compassion to be had of them; not complacency to be taken in them, or mirth drawn from them; they, in respect to common humanity, should rather be studiously connived at, and concealed, or mildly excused, than wilfully laid open, and wantonly descanted upon; they rather are to be deplored secretly, than openly derided.

      The reputation of men is too noble a sacrifice to be offered up to vainglory, fond pleasure, or ill-humour; it is a good far more dear and precious, than to be prostituted for idle sport and divertisement. It becometh us not to trifle with that which in common estimation is of so great moment--to play rudely with a thing so very brittle, yet of so vast price; which being once broken or cracked, it is very hard and scarce possible to repair. A small, transient pleasure, a tickling the ears, wagging the lungs, forming the face into a smile, a giggle, or a hum, are not to be purchased with the grievous distaste and smart, perhaps with the real damage and mischief of our neighbour, which attend upon contempt. This is not jesting, surely, but bad earnest; 'tis wild mirth, which is the mother of grief to those whom we should tenderly love; 'tis unnatural sport, which breedeth displeasure in them whose delight it should promote, whose liking it should procure: it crosseth the nature and design of this way of speaking, which is to cement and ingratiate society, to render conversation pleasant and sprightly, for mutual satisfaction and comfort.

      True festivity is called salt, and such it should be, giving a smart but savoury relish to discourse; exciting an appetite, not irritating disgust; cleansing sometimes, but never creating a sore: and [Greek], (if it become thus insipid), or unsavoury, it is therefore good for nothing, but to be cast out, and trodden under foot of men. Such jesting which doth not season wholesome or harmless discourse, but giveth a haut gout to putrid and poisonous stuff, gratifying distempered palates and corrupt stomachs, is indeed odious and despicable folly, to be cast out with loathing, to be trodden under foot with contempt. If a man offends in this sort, to please himself, 'tis scurvy malignity; if to delight others, 'tis base servility and flattery: upon the first score he is a buffoon to himself; upon the last, a fool to others. And well in common speech are such practisers so termed, the grounds of that practice being so vain, and the effect so unhappy. The heart of fools, saith the wise man, is in the house of mirth; meaning, it seems, especially such hurtfully wanton mirth: for it is (as he further telleth us) the property of fools to delight in doing harm ("It is as sport to a fool to do mischief"). Is it not in earnest most palpable folly, for so mean ends to do so great harm; to disoblige men in sport; to lose friends and get enemies for a conceit; out of a light humour to provoke fierce wrath, and breed tough hatred; to engage one's self consequently very far in strife, danger, and trouble? No way certainly is more apt to produce such effects than this; nothing more speedily inflameth, or more thoroughly engageth men, or sticketh longer in men's hearts and memories, than bitter taunts and scoffs: whence this honey soon turns into gall; these jolly comedies do commonly terminate in woeful tragedies.

      Especially this scurrilous and scoffing way is then most detestable when it not only exposeth the blemishes and infirmities of men, but abuseth piety and virtue themselves; flouting persons for their constancy in devotion, or their strict adherence to a conscientious practice of duty; aiming to effect that which Job complaineth of, "The just upright man is laughed to scorn;" resembling those whom the psalmist thus describeth, "Who whet their tongue like a sword, and bend their arrows, even bitter words, that they may shoot in secret at the perfect;" serving good men as Jeremy was served--"The word of the Lord," saith he, "was made a reproach unto me, and a derision daily."

      This practice doth evidently in the highest degree tend to the disparagement and discouragement of goodness; aiming to expose it, and to render men ashamed thereof; and it manifestly proceedeth from a desperate corruption of mind, from a mind hardened and emboldened, sold and enslaved to wickedness: whence they who deal therein are in Holy Scripture represented as egregious sinners, or persons superlatively wicked, under the name of scorners ([Greek], pests, or pestilent men, the Greek translators call them, properly enough in regard to the effects of their practice); concerning whom the wise man (signifying how God will meet with them in their own way) saith, "Surely the Lord scorneth the scorners." '[Greek] (scoffers, or mockers), St. Peter termeth them, who walk according to their own lusts; who not being willing to practise, are ready to deride virtue; thereby striving to seduce others into their pernicious courses.

      This offence also proportionably groweth more criminal as it presumeth to reach persons eminent in dignity or worth, unto whom special veneration is appropriate. This adjoineth sauciness to scurrility, and advanceth the wrong thereof into a kind of sacrilege. 'Tis not only injustice, but profaneness, to abuse the gods. Their station is a sanctuary from all irreverence and reproach; they are seated on high, that we may only look up to them with respect; their defects are not to be seen, or not to be touched by malicious or wanton wits, by spiteful or scornful tongues: the diminution of their credit is a public mischief, and the State itself doth suffer in their becoming objects of scorn; not only themselves are vilified and degraded, but the great affairs they manage are obstructed, the justice they administer is disparaged thereby.

      In fine, no jesting is allowable which is not thoroughly innocent: it is an unworthy perverting of wit to employ it in biting and scratching; in working prejudice to any man's reputation or interest; in needlessly incensing any man's anger or sorrow; in raising animosities, dissensions, and feuds among any.

      Whence it is somewhat strange that any men from so mean and silly a practice should expect commendation, or that any should afford regard thereto; the which it is so far from meriting, that indeed contempt and abhorrence are due to it. Men do truly more render themselves despicable than others when, without just ground, or reasonable occasion, they do attack others in this way. That such a practice doth ever find any encouragement or acceptance, whence can it proceed, but from the bad nature and small judgment of some persons? For to any man who is endowed with any sense of goodness, and hath a competence of true wit, or a right knowledge of good manners (who knows. . . . inurbanum lepido seponere dicto), it cannot but be unsavoury and loathsome. The repute it obtaineth is in all respects unjust. So would it appear, not only were the cause to be decided in a court of morality, because it consists not with virtue and wisdom; but even before any competent judges of wit itself. For he overthrows his own pretence, and cannot reasonably claim any interest in wit, who doth thus behave himself: he prejudgeth himself to want wit, who cannot descry fit matter to divert himself or others: he discovereth a great straitness and sterility of good invention, who cannot in all the wide field of things find better subjects of discourse; who knows not how to be ingenious within reasonable compass, but to pick up a sorry conceit is forced to make excursions beyond the bounds of honesty and decency.

      Neither is it any argument of considerable ability in him that haps to please this way: a slender faculty will serve the turn. The sharpness of his speech cometh not from wit so much as from choler, which furnisheth the lowest inventions with a kind of pungent expression, and giveth an edge to every spiteful word: so that any dull wretch doth seem to scold eloquently and ingeniously. Commonly also satirical taunts do owe their seeming piquancy, not to the speaker or his words, but to the subject, and the hearers; the matter conspiring with the bad nature or the vanity of men who love to laugh at any rate, and to be pleased at the expense of other men's repute; conceiting themselves extolled by the depression of their neighbour, and hoping to gain by his loss. Such customers they are that maintain the bitter wits, who otherwise would want trade, and might go a-begging. For commonly they who seem to excel this way are miserably flat in other discourse, and most dully serious: they have a particular unaptness to describe any good thing, or commend any worthy person; being destitute of right ideas, and proper terms answerable to such purposes: their representations of that kind are absurd and unhandsome; their eulogies (to use their own way of speaking) are in effect satires, and they can hardly more abuse a man than by attempting to commend him; like those in the prophet, who were wise to do ill, but to do well had no knowledge.

      3. I pass by that it is very culpable to be facetious in obscene and smutty matters. Such things are not to be discoursed on either in jest or in earnest; they must not, as St. Paul saith, be so much as named among Christians. To meddle with them is not to disport, but to defile one's self and others. There is indeed no more certain sign of a mind utterly debauched from piety and virtue than by affecting such talk. But further--

      4. All unseasonable jesting is blamable. As there are some proper seasons of relaxation, when we may desipere in loco; so there are some times, and circumstances of things, wherein it concerneth and becometh men to be serious in mind, grave in demeanour, and plain in discourse; when to sport in this way is to do indecently or uncivilly, to be impertinent or troublesome.

      It comporteth not well with the presence of superiors, before whom it becometh us to be composed and modest, much less with the performance of sacred offices, which require an earnest attention, and most serious frame of mind.

      In deliberations and debates about affairs of great importance, the simple manner of speaking to the point is the proper, easy, clear, and compendious way: facetious speech there serves only to obstruct and entangle business, to lose time, and protract the result. The shop and exchange will scarce endure jesting in their lower transactions: the Senate, the Court of Justice, the Church do much more exclude it from their more weighty consultations. Whenever it justleth out, or hindereth the despatch of other serious business, taking up the room or swallowing the time due to it, or indisposing the minds of the audience to attend it, then it is unseasonable and pestilent. [Greek] (to play, that we may be seriously busy), is the good rule (of Anacharsis), implying the subordination of sport to business, as a condiment and furtherance, not an impediment or clog thereto. He that for his sport neglects his business, deserves indeed to be reckoned among children; and children's fortune will attend him, to be pleased with toys, and to fail of substantial profit.

      'Tis again improper (because indeed uncivil, and inhuman) to jest with persons that are in a sad or afflicted condition; as arguing want of due considering or due commiserating their case. It appears a kind of insulting upon their misfortune, and is apt to foment their grief. Even in our own case (upon any disastrous occurrence to ourselves), it would not be seemly to frolic it thus; it would signify want of due regard to the frowns of God, and the strokes of His hand; it would cross the wise man's advice, "In the day of prosperity be joyful, but in the day of adversity consider."

      It is also not seasonable, or civil, to be jocund in this way with those who desire to be serious, and like not the humour. Jocularity should not be forcibly obtruded, but by a kindly conspiracy (or tacit compact) slip into conversation; consent and complaisance give all the life thereto. Its design is to sweeten and ease society; when to the contrary it breedeth offence or encumbrance, it is worse than vain and unprofitable. From these instances we may collect when in other like cases it is unseasonable, and therefore culpable. Further--

      5. To affect, admire, or highly to value this way of speaking (either absolutely in itself, or in comparison to the serious and plain way of speech), and thence to be drawn into an immoderate use thereof, is blamable. A man of ripe age and sound judgment, for refreshment to himself, or in complaisance to others, may sometimes condescend to play in this, or any other harmless way; but to be fond of it, to prosecute it with a careful or painful eagerness, to dote and dwell upon it, to reckon it a brave or a fine thing, a singular matter of commendation, a transcendent accomplishment, anywise preferable to rational endowments, or comparable to the moral excellencies of our mind (to solid knowledge, or sound wisdom, or true virtue and goodness), this is extremely childish, or brutish, and far below a man. What can be more absurd than to make business of play, to be studious and laborious in toys, to make a profession or drive a trade of impertinency? What more plain nonsense can there be, than to be earnest in jest, to be continual in divertisement, or constant in pastime; to make extravagance all our way, and sauce all our diet? Is not this plainly the life of a child that is ever busy, yet never hath anything to do? Or the life of that mimical brute which is always active in playing uncouth and unlucky tricks; which, could it speak, might surely pass well for a professed wit?

      The proper work of man, the grand drift of human life, is to follow reason (that noble spark kindled from Heaven; that princely and powerful faculty, which is able to reach so lofty objects, and achieve so mighty works), not to soothe fancy, that brutish, shallow and giddy power, able to perform nothing worthy much regard. We are not (even Cicero could tell us) born for play and jesting, but for severity, and the study of graver and greater affairs. Yes, we were purposely designed, and fitly framed, to understand and contemplate, to affect and delight in, to undertake and pursue most noble and worthy things; to be employed in business considerably profitable to ourselves, and beneficial to others. We do therefore strangely debase ourselves, when we do strongly bend our minds to, or set our affections upon, such toys.

      Especially to do so is unworthy of a Christian; that is, of a person who is advanced to so high a rank, and so glorious relations; who hath so excellent objects of his mind and affections presented before him, and so excellent rewards for his care and pains proposed to him; who is engaged in affairs of so worthy nature, and so immense consequence: for him to be zealous about quibbles, for him to be ravished with puny conceits and expressions, 'tis a wondrous oversight, and an enormous indecency.

      He indeed that prefers any faculty to reason, disclaims the privilege of being a man, and understands not the worth of his own nature; he that prizes any quality beyond virtue and goodness, renounces the title of a Christian, and knows not how to value the dignity of his profession. It is these two (reason and virtue) in conjunction which produce all that is considerably good and great in the world. Fancy can do little; doth never anything well, except as directed and wielded by them. Do pretty conceits or humorous talk carry on any business, or perform any work? No; they are ineffectual and fruitless: often they disturb, but they never despatch anything with good success. It is simple reason (as dull and dry as it seemeth) which expediteth all the grand affairs, which accomplisheth all the mighty works that we see done in the world. In truth, therefore, as one diamond is worth numberless bits of glass; so one solid reason is worth innumerable fancies: one grain of true science and sound wisdom in real worth and use doth outweigh loads (if any loads can be) of freakish wit. To rate things otherwise doth argue great weakness of judgment, and fondness of mind. So to conceit of this way signifieth a weak mind; and much to delight therein rendereth it so--nothing more debaseth the spirit of a man, or more rendereth it light and trifling.

      Hence if we must be venting pleasant conceits, we should do it as if we did it not, carelessly and unconcernedly; not standing upon it, or valuing ourselves for it: we should do it with measure and moderation; not giving up ourselves thereto, so as to mind it or delight in it more than in any other thing: we should not be so intent upon it as to become remiss in affairs more proper or needful for us; so as to nauseate serious business, or disrelish the more worthy entertainments of our minds. This is the great danger of it, which we daily see men to incur; they are so bewitched with a humour of being witty themselves, or of hearkening to the fancies of others, that it is this only which they can like or favour, which they can endure to think or talk of. 'Tis a great pity that men who would seem to have so much wit, should so little understand themselves. But further--

      6. Vainglorious ostentation this way is very blamable. All ambition, all vanity, all conceitedness, upon whatever ground they are founded, are absolutely unreasonable and silly; but yet those being grounded on some real ability, or some useful skill, are wise and manly in comparison to this, which standeth on a foundation so manifestly slight and weak. The old philosophers by a severe father were called animalia gloriae (animals of glory), and by a satirical poet they were termed bladders of vanity; but they at least did catch at praise from praiseworthy knowledge; they were puffed up with a wind which blew some good to mankind; they sought glory from that which deserved glory if they had not sought it; it was a substantial and solid credit which they did affect, resulting from successful enterprises of strong reason, and stout industry: but these animalculae gloriae, these flies, these insects of glory, these, not bladders, but bubbles of vanity, would be admired and praised for that which is nowise admirable or laudable; for the casual hits and emergencies of roving fancy; for stumbling on an odd conceit or phrase, which signifieth nothing, and is as superficial as the smile, as hollow as the noise it causeth. Nothing certainly in nature is more ridiculous than a self-conceited wit, who deemeth himself somebody, and greatly pretendeth to commendation from so pitiful and worthless a thing as a knack of trifling.

      7. Lastly, it is our duty never so far to engage ourselves in this way as thereby to lose or to impair that habitual seriousness, modesty and sobriety of mind, that steady composedness, gravity and constancy of demeanour, which become Christians. We should continually keep our minds intent upon our high calling, and grand interests; ever well tuned, and ready for the performance of holy devotions, and the practice of most serious duties with earnest attention and fervent affection. Wherefore we should never suffer them to be dissolved into levity, or disordered into a wanton frame, indisposing us for religious thoughts and actions. We ought always in our behaviour to maintain, not only [Greek] (a fitting decency), but also [Greek] (a stately gravity), a kind of venerable majesty, suitable to that high rank which we bear of God's friends and children; adorning our holy profession, and guarding us from all impressions of sinful vanity. Wherefore we should not let ourselves be transported into any excessive pitch of lightness, inconsistent with or prejudicial to our Christian state and business. Gravity and modesty are the senses of piety, which being once slighted, sin will easily attempt and encroach upon us. So the old Spanish gentleman may be interpreted to have been wise who, when his son upon a voyage to the Indies took his leave of him, gave him this odd advice, "My son, in the first place keep thy gravity, in the next place fear God;" intimating that a man must first be serious, before he can be pious.

      To conclude, as we need not be demure, so must we not be impudent; as we should not be sour, so ought we not to be fond; as we may be free, so we should not be vain; as we may well stoop to friendly complaisance, so we should take heed of falling into contemptible levity. If without wronging others, or derogating from ourselves, we can be facetious, if we can use our wits in jesting innocently, and conveniently, we may sometimes do it: but let us, in compliance with St. Paul's direction, beware of "foolish talking and jesting which are not convenient."

      "Now the God of grace and peace . . . . make us perfect in every good work to do His will, working in us that which is well pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen."

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See Also:
   Against Foolish Talking And Jesting - Part 1
   Against Foolish Talking And Jesting - Part 2

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